Tag Archives: Coventry

Back out in the Outback

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

 

Three Spires and Guildhall take a bold stab at the colourful musical, based on the joyous Australian comedy film starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce.  It’s an ambitious task for any company, with demands on all aspects of production and, for the most part, this one pulls it off with exuberance.

Craig Garner is positively luminous as Tick, a drag artist summoned from Sydney to Alice Springs by his ex to perform at her hotel.  Somewhat statuesque when in drag, Garner’s vocals, complete with Aussie twang, are excellent throughout.  Tick recruits Bernadette, an ageing transsexual (Steve Smith) and Adam (Doug Gilbey-Smith) and the trio rehearse their act as they travel through the outback on the eponymous bus.  Smith has Bernadette’s deadpan put-downs down to a tee but sound problems mean some of his killer one-liners are lost in the mix, while Gilbey-Smith proves himself a lovely mover.  They’re a likeable bunch and our sympathies are immediately with them – when the spectre of homophobia raises its ugly head, the fly in their jar of slap, it is very clear whose side we are on.  There are no grey areas in this rainbow-coloured story.  And quite right, too!

Jamie Sheeran, the director no less, appears as a kind of Tina Turner/Grizzly Adams mash-up as club host Miss Understanding – you have to admire him not only for his performance but for being prepared to do what he expects of his company.  The male members of his chorus may all sport dad bods rather than being shaped like anything you might see at G.A.Y. but they give it their all!

Karen Staton is hilariously grotesque as Shirley, as is Sue Biddle’s Cynthia, a kind of ping-pong champion, shall we say?  But before you worry that the show might be misogynistic, there is also Kate Temple-Brown’s Marion, Tick’s ex – pleasant, reasonable and fun.  What is held up for ridicule is homophobia, and ridicule is a powerful weapon.   The show also touches on issues of gay parenting – it turns out Tick’s estranged little boy Benji is more at ease with it than he is himself; Malachi Griggs-Taylor joins Craig Garner on stage for the show’s most touching moment.

Vocal support comes from the Divas (Kayleigh Brook, Kelsey Checklin & Claire Tyler) suspended over the action and belting out the numbers for the others to lip-synch.  As you’d expect, the costumes are many and varied and delightful, based on the original Oscar-winning designs.  You can’t do Priscilla without the iconic flipflop frock!  Julie Bedlow-Howard’s choreography is lively and interesting, combining disco moves with more musical theatre manoeuvres.

There are problems with mics and some lighting cues going astray, but this is the first night at the venue so I expect these will be ironed out.  A couple of moments don’t quite work: getting people from the audience for a hoe-down doesn’t quite come off, and bits of action, like Bernadette fainting at first sight of Tick’s son, need tweaking for greater impact.  On the whole, though, this is a hugely enjoyable evening, delivered with enthusiasm and talent, a feel-good, energetic performance of a life-affirming tale that, in these days of the DUP lurking in the wings of Westminster, makes a bold and proud affirmation that gays are human too.

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Run, Florist, Run!

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 26th October, 2016

 

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classic musical crops up like a hardy perennial and it’s always worth a revisit.  Ashman’s lyrics are clever and witty, while Menken’s score is bursting with energetic, catchy tunes.  It’s a combination that proves irresistible and this touring production from Sell A Door Theatre Company serves the material superbly.

Sam Lupton gives a star turn as nerdy flower shop assistant Seymour whose botanical tinkering leads to a Faustian pact with a mean, green mother from outer space.  Lupton is in excellent voice and makes us care about his Seymour.  Stephanie Clift is sweet as bubbly shop girl Audrey, a damsel in distress who can also belt out a number.  Her ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ is a highlight, as is her duet with Lupton, ‘Suddenly, Seymour’.  Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello shows TV talent show star Rhydian can also act – he seems to be having a lot of fun and, of course, he gets to show off his impressive vocal stylings.  He gives a highly charged performance – he’s a gas! Paul Kissaun entertains as the kvetching shop owner Mr Mushnik – there’s more than a hint of Reb Tevye here! – while Neil Nicholas gives carnivorous plant Audrey II a deliciously dark chocolate soulful sound.  The plant is a sinister, looming presence, a reckoning that has to be faced.

Sasha Latoya, Vanessa Fisher and Cassie Clare form a formidable trio, acting as a kind of Greek chorus to the action and keeping the 60s soul groove going.  Musical director Dustin Conrad and the band are the heart driving the show, pumping energy from start to finish.

Director Tara Louis Wilkinson gives us fun with moments of comic horror – the gore is hinted at rather than depicted.  David Shields’s design adds to the heightened, cartoony feel of the piece but I find some of the lighting cues need to be tighter – this was the show’s first night in this venue so I’ll let them off!

The show has currency in today’s world of fears of genetically modified plants that could devastate life as we know it.  Above all, though, this is enormous fun delivered by a company that is a cut (or should that be ‘cutting’?) above the rest.

Blooming great.

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Sam Lupton and Stephanie Clift decide to seymour of each other (Photo: Matt Martin)


Dim and Dimmer

THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th November, 2015

 

Headlong’s production of Tennessee Williams’s 1940s play curiously sheds light by keeping us in the dark. It’s very dimly lit – we are warned it will be by Tom (Tom Mothersdale) in his prologue. He tells us we are about to see a ‘memory play’ as if that’s a genre, and he narrates – Williams’s language has a languid poetry to it that shines through the gloom. At first I find the darkness problematic; it’s as though Tom’s memory involves deterioration of vision. The cast is almost lost in Fly Davis’s black box of a set. It’s like they’re in a basement during a blackout. And yet powerful performances emerge. Greta Scacchi dominates as overbearing mother, Amanda, with her flights of nostalgia and old-fashioned manners. Amanda enlists Tom to bring home a gentleman caller for his sister – her only hope is to marry her off. Scacchi is the engine that drives the performance, keeping us hooked in while the design and production choices keep us at a remove. Distortions of sound by Gareth Fry along with bursts of popular music of the time link the scenes with mood as much as Tom’s narration.

There are striking moments when the director’s choices work brilliantly and brutally: the blocking is stylised in contrast with the naturalistic delivery of the dialogue, providing visual metaphors (when you can see them!) and colouring Tom’s recollections of these events. It was obviously a dark time for him! The moment when they say grace before dinner is an example where this expressionistic staging illuminates the inner life of the characters.

Tom Mothersdale has a nice line in sarcasm – it’s never stated overtly but Tom’s secret life, what keeps him out until the wee small hours, is hinted at (a typical feature of Williams’s work). As club-footed Laura, Erin Doherty brings out the girl’s emotional immaturity – Laura is hampered by more than physical disability, she has social anxieties too; and as the gentleman caller Jim, Eric Kofi Abrefa is like a breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic setting. Odd though that Tom can recall in such detail scenes in which he doesn’t appear, but hey ho…

The second act packs the emotional punch. Director Ellen McDougall carries off the denouement with aplomb – her unconventional way of presenting Tennessee Williams pays off by the end. It may not be easy on the eye, peering into the murk, but there is a blinding flash of realisation and, literally, a shattering moment. Sometimes despite and sometimes because of the conceptual presentation, the emotional truth of the piece remains intact, even if the glass animals do not. Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and egos are as fragile and brittle as Laura’s vitreous zoo.

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Playing by the Rules

HOKE’S BLUFF

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 4th December, 2014

 

We have all seen them, those sports-themed movies.  They’re all the same.  Individuals fighting against the odds to win the climactic championship, proving their worth as a team player.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Here, duo Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse (working collectively as Action Hero) re-enact version of key scenes from this genre, exposing not  only the clichéd nature of the stories but also a shallowness to the culture and, at the heart of that culture, the engine that drives it all, perpetuating the myth of the American Dream.  Work hard and you will reach the top. Millions of Americans swallow and repeat this lie, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The two actors portray all the characters: the team members, the cheerleading squad, the tough-talking coach, the commentators and even the furry mascot.  This small-town high school team is the Wildcats; we have all been given pennants to wave – but the sport they play is never pinned down.  The story covers all all-American sports simultaneously and interchangeably.

The stroke of genius is the cast retaining their English accents.  The dispassionate, deadpan delivery gives the lie to the passionate pep talks and just how goddamn important everything is.  It leads to some hilarious moments.  The Coach comes across like an office manager in a staff briefing, for example.  There is the added bonus that we, as a British audience, are too reserved.  We can’t throw ourselves into the whooping and cheering to which our American cousins are prone at the drop of a sports reference.

The absurdity of regarding sport as anything other than entertainment is laid bare.  But the play hints at more than this.  As a culture, we are becoming increasingly Americanised.  And it doesn’t suit us.  It makes for a shallower society where the pressure to conform is almost irresistible.  The play shows us the American way is a poor fit for us Brits.  We should oppose this cultural imperialism (and, while I’m on this soapbox, shun such American things as privatised healthcare, for instance).

All that said, this is a hugely entertaining 80 minutes.  There’s even a training montage performed by a seemingly indefatigable James Stenhouse as “Tyler”, while cheerleader Connie begins to have doubts and questions, resisting the expectations imposed on her gender.  Of course, they end up playing the game, playing by the rules, and are ultimately victorious – before the high school dream machine spits them out into their unremarkable and mundane adult lives.

It’s energetically performed; the pace never lets up, and there is almost ceaseless loud music to get our hearts pumping.  Go, Wildcats!

The two are joined by Laura Dannequin as a referee in a black-and-white striped shirt.  She blows her whistle between scenes and makes arcane pronouncements in impenetrable sports lingo.  Inscrutable and implacable, the referee enforces the rules and imposes penalties with the arbitrary nature of fate and the unknowability of God.

Unusual, very funny and acerbic, Hoke’s Bluff is joyously subversive.  I waved my pennant enthusiastically – until my arm began to feel a bit tired.

Go Wildcats (Photo: Ludovico Des Cognets)

Go Wildcats (Photo: Ludovico Des Cognets)


Everybody needs good neighbours

THE BELIEVERS

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 13th March, 2014

Bryony Lavery’s new play, created in collaboration with Frantic Assembly is the stuff of horror films.  When their house falls victim to flooding, Joff and Marianne, along with their daughter, are invited to spend the night in the home of neighbours Ollie and Maud, who also have a daughter.  The two girls play together, off-stage and unseen, while the adults get to know each other over a bottle of white rioja and Ollie’s special peanut sauce.  A comedy of manners ensues as Joff and Marianne react to their hosts’ religious convictions in a beautifully played and very funny scene around the dinner table.

The evening takes a turn for the weird long before a terrible life-changing event that stems from Ollie and Maud’s well-meaning plan to ‘cleanse’ their guests’ wayward daughter.

For the most part naturalistically performed, the piece is given a peculiar feel by its pared-down set.  Empty frames form doorways and corners, suggesting different rooms and locations.  Odd angles add an expressionistic element – the actors move the set around in a graceful, choreographed manner and it’s surprising how evocative these sparse lines are, pushing the emotions of the characters to the fore, leaving the audience to imagine things like décor, furniture and objects.

Andy Purves’s lighting design gives a Caravaggio-like appearance to some of the scenes.  With the addition of Carolyn Downing’s design for sound, the lighting gives us a few ghost-train scares.  It’s extremely effective.

Director Scott Graham keeps the action accessible and the people relatable although inhabiting a highly stylised space.  Their gravity-defying suspension on ropes changes our perspective and keeps a sense of ‘otherness’ running through the performance.  Events have thrown these lives off-kilter; the characters are adrift in familiar settings that have become unworldly to them.

Eileen Walsh (Marianne) and Christopher Colquhoun (Joff) are excellent as the ordinary couple overwhelmed by a nightmare, while Richard Mylan (Ollie) and Penny Layden (Maud) keep the weirdo neighbours credible.  Bryony Lavery’s writing is as sharp as ever – there is a kind of poetry to her naturalistic dialogue that is mirrored by the eerie beauty of the production style.

Stark, gripping, funny, inventive and scary, The Believers holds belief up to question in a way that reminded me a little of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle, and provides a thought-provoking, entertaining trip to the theatre.

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Stark Raving

BEATS

Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 5th December, 2013

The rave scene of the 1990s did nothing for me; by then I was already a square and a fuddy-duddy and couldn’t tell the difference between house, garage or even garden shed, and so a play set during that era and milieu didn’t automatically appeal.

Kieran Hurley is the writer and performer, narrating and delivering monologues as all the characters in the story which tells of 15 year old Johno attending his first illegal rave with a friend.  It is also the story of PC Dunlop, tooled up in riot gear and hopped up on adrenalin.  Attitudes clash when police baton meets boy’s face.

The play makes something of rave culture understandable: the desire of hopeless, disaffected youth to escape the shittiness of their everyday existence, of losing oneself in a shared experience, of belonging, of celebrating collective humanity.  But that’s all by-the-by.  What the play is really about is Britain post 2011 riots and the ongoing erosion of civil liberties and the demonization of young people.  On the day I saw it, the news was reporting ‘clashes’ of overly enthusiastic police with peaceful protestors.

As Hurley says at the beginning, with the easy delivery of a stand-up comedian (I was reminded of Daniel Sloss), he leaves it to us to fill in the gaps.

It’s a thoroughly captivating performance.  There is continuous music from onstage DJ Hushpuppy (possibly a pseudonym) “mixing” at his “decks” or “gramophone” (I’m not completely sure of the argot)  Visuals play on a screen, trippy, acid-coloured animations by Jamie Wardrop, and Adam Thayers’s lighting is constantly changing to the beat or to accentuate the action, with roaming spotlights and bright colours of the kind you might expect to find at such a ‘rave’ (or ‘discotheque’).  For the most part, I was watching Hurley’s absorbing performance and neglected to look at the screen.

He sits at a desk with a lamp shining in his face, speaking into a microphone – there is a hint of interview room about it (although I’ve been to as many of those as I have raves) and yet it doesn’t feel at all like a static show.  The hour passes very quickly thanks to Hurley’s captivating storytelling and impressive talents as both performer and playwright. (He also co-directs with Julia Taudevin and is evidently a theatrical force to be reckoned with).

Beats is a totally engaging, relevant piece and will stay in my memory long after its current tour is over.

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Whore’s Play

‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Saturday 4th February, 2012

John Ford’s 17th century pot-boiler is given a contemporary setting in Cheek By Jowl’s touring production. Central to the set is a bed, complete with random junk underneath it, and clothes and detritus strewn around it, as though Tracey Emin was the maid. The cast dance on in smart suits. There’s a Reservoir Dogs/Guy Ritchie gangster vibe – these are people with their own code and people who do not shy from using violence to impose their will.

Straight away, we are flung into a world of incest and betrayals. Giovanni (Jack Gordon) impregnates his own sister, Annabella (Lydia Wilson), who is then married off to Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) who doesn’t appreciate her tainted state and sets servant Vasques (Laurence Spellman) to discover the identity of the baby’s father. Vasques, delivering his lines in the broadest East End of London accent, is darkly funny. He thwarts the plot of spurned widow Hippolita (Suzanne Burden) to poison his employer, and seduces and tortures the truth from Annabella’s maid, Putana (Lizzie Hopley).

A door upstage leads to a bathroom. It is in here that most of the nastiness and violence takes place. We glimpse it, we overhear it, we imagine the worst. This makes any onstage unpleasantness more shocking. Director Declan Donnellan infuses the production with a wealth of ideas. There is a mixture of the sacred and the profane. The bed becomes an altar; the cast form tableaux based on religious images. They murmur prayers beneath the action. They sing Latin incantations. They dance a conga, filing past the Cardinal to kiss his ring, in a parody of ritual. The humour counterpoints the dark subject matter and the company of actors give a physically demanding and vocally diverse performance.

There is a great deal of taking off of shirts and throwing them away. Everything ends up on the bedroom floor. It is a violation of a private space, in keeping with the subject matter.

The ending is cut. The characters are left reeling in shock at the discovery of Annabella’s mutilated body, while Giovanni sits on the bed, holding his sister’s heart, altogether insane. This is somehow bleaker than the multiple deaths and reckonings Ford supplies, in this context at any rate.

It is a gripping production with plenty going on throughout. A wealth of ideas serves the plot and the transposition to a contemporary setting works very well. Cream of the crop for was Laurence Spellman as the plain-speaking factotum and also Jack Hawkins as Soranzo, a nasty piece of work with a gloss of respectability. You wouldn’t want him coming at you with a wire coat hanger. But really the entire company proves yet again that Cheek By Jowl create entertaining, intriguing and innovative work, imbuing classic texts with new life.